Night Journey, poem by Theodore Roethke with photograph by Corky Lee


Night Journey
by Theodore Roethke

Now as the train bears west,
Its rhythm rocks the earth,
And from my Pullman berth
I stare into the night
While others take their rest.
Bridges of iron lace,
A suddenness of trees,
A lap of mountain mist
All cross my line of sight,
Then a bleak wasted place,
And a lake below my knees.
Full on my neck I feel
The straining at a curve;
My muscles move with steel,
I wake in every nerve.
I watch a beacon swing
From dark to blazing bright;
We thunder through ravines
And gullies washed with light.
Beyond the mountain pass
Mist deepens on the pane;
We rush into a rain
That rattles double glass.
Wheels shake the roadbed stone,
The pistons jerk and shove,
I stay up half the night
To see the land I love.

PHOTO: In 2014, on the 145th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad’s completion at Promontory Summit, Utah, photographer Corky Lee invited descendants of Chinese workers to recreate the 1869 photo taken without their ancestors who helped build the railroad. Photo (c) Corky Lee, All Rights Reserved, used by permission.  


NOTE: Between 1863 and 1869, as many as 20,000 Chinese workers helped build the treacherous western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad that began in Sacramento, California. When not enough white men signed up, the railroad began hiring Chinese men for the backbreaking labor. Chinese workers blasted tunnels through mountains, cut through dense forests, filled deep ravines, constructed long trestles, and built enormous retaining walls. Chinese workers were paid 30-50% less than their white counterparts and were given the most dangerous work. As they approached the meeting point with the Union Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah, thousands of Chinese workers laid down 10 miles of track in less than 24 hours. Progress came at great cost: Chinese civic organizations retrieved an estimated 1,200 bodies along the route and sent them to China for burial. The transcontinental railroad’s completion allowed travelers to journey across the country in a week—a trip that had previously taken more than a month. Politicians pointed to the country’s great achievement, failing to mention the foreign-born workers who had made it possible. Source: “Remember the Chinese immigrants who built America’s first transcontinental railroad” by Gordon H. Chang, professor of history, Stanford University, Los Angeles Times, May 10, 2019.

PHOTO: Chinese workers toil in a treacherous stretch of the Transcontinental Railroad in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, late 1860s. (Source: National Park Service.)


NOTE ON PHOTO: This photo depicts the ceremony on May 10, 1969 for installing the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, representing the completion of the First U.S. Transcontinental Railroad. At center left, Samuel S. Montague, Central Pacific Railroad, shakes hands with Grenville M. Dodge, Union Pacific Railroad (center right). They are surrounded by men who built the railway—but Chinese workers were not included in the celebration. 

Photo: Andrew J. Russell, Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, used by permission.)


PHOTO: Plaque at Promontory Summit, Utah, placed in 1969 to commemorate the centennial of the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad and to honor “the Chinese workers of the Central Pacific Railroad whose indomitable courage made it possible.”


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) is regarded as among the most accomplished and influential poets of his generation. Roethke’s work is characterized by its introspection, rhythm, and natural imagery. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1954 for his book, The Waking, and he won the annual National Book Award for Poetry twice, in 1959 for Words for the Wind and posthumously in 1965 for The Far Field. In the November 1968 edition of the Atlantic Monthly, former U.S. Poet Laureate and author James Dickey wrote Roethke was: “…in my opinion the greatest poet this country has yet produced.” In 2005, Library of America published Theodore Roethke: Selected Poems.

corky lee

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER: Young Kwok “Corky” Lee (1947 – January 27, 2021) was a renowned photographer whose work chronicled Asian American culture. Born and raised in Queens, New York, Lee was a second-generation Chinese American who taught himself photography with borrowed cameras because he was unable to afford his own. His work was inspired by the 1869 photo he saw in his school textbook showing the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah, with Chinese workers noticeably absent from the photograph. Lee addressed this injustice 145 years later, when he photographed descendants of Chinese railroad workers at the same site. Known as the “undisputed unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate,” his photographs documented the daily lives of Asian-Americans as well as moments in American history. In an interview in AsianWeek, he commented: “I’d like to think that every time I take my camera out of my bag, it’s like drawing a sword to combat indifference, injustice and discrimination, trying to get rid of stereotypes.” His work, which has been described as “only a small attempt to rectify omissions in our history text books,” has appeared in Time magazine, The New York Times, The Village Voice, Associated Press, The Villager, and Downtown Express, as well as exhibitions throughout the United States. Corky Lee died on January 27, 2021, at age 73 of complications from COVID-19.  Read more about Corky Lee’s life and work at

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